A Man of Vision
Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences Fifty Years Later
by Robert A. Preston
I first read Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver sometime in the late sixties. For me, being trained in scholastic philosophy, and always struggling to make the subject of metaphysics understandable and relevant to college students, it was an answer to prayers. For almost 30 years, Ideas has been a companion text to one of the traditional textbooks on Thomistic metaphysics in my course, and it has been a most happy marriage, at least for me, if not for my students. But I hope that I am not being unduly optimistic when I say that, for most of my students, Weaver became a guide to their understanding of what has gone wrong in a society they were now only beginning to examine. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss once again Ideas Have Consequences, this time from the perspective of 50 years after its publication, and to join with scholars who have a fuller knowledge of Weaver’s writings than I, to review the importance of this undeservedly little-known thinker for an understanding of the present age.
I believe that Weaver possesses a vision of an organized society and a unified culture from the perspective of one of the two golden ages of the Western tradition, that of the High Middle Ages from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries.1 From this perspective he provides a critique of the slow decline of society beginning in the fourteenth century, caused by what he calls “the fateful doctrine of nominalism,”2 to the present time, where that doctrine is now the dominant view.
Intelligibility & Freedom
Weaver’s vision is based upon two premises: the world is intelligible and the human person is free. The actual source of this intelligibility Weaver does not discuss because his strategy is to make his argument as nonreligious as possible, but it is clear that he finds that source of intelligibility in a supreme mind, whether that mind be called the architect of the universe or the creator.
In appealing to the intelligibility of the universe, Weaver is siding with the philosophical realists against the nominalists. The difference between the two schools is that the realists admit of two realities: the universal and the individual. An example of this is that each person is an individual existent who shares in the universal of human nature. In the traditional metaphysics of realism, we are at once one and many. We are all one in our human nature and many in our individuality.
The significance of this is easy to see. It is the universal that provides the basis of intelligibility. If we can find an essential characteristic of human nature, then we know that this characteristic is possessed by every individual human being.
Weaver will use such terms as universal, essence, nature, and form interchangeably. It is upon the reality denoted by these terms that truth is based because the universal transcends space and time. It has its reality based in an order beyond the spatial and temporal, that is, beyond the order of change and motion.
It is also the realm of the universal that is the basis of truth. Weaver accepts the traditional definition of metaphysical truth as that which cannot be otherwise than it is, and truth in this sense is unchanging and always and everywhere the same. If, for example, we determine lying to be the willful deception of someone in authority who has the right to know, and if we further determine that justice in society cannot be achieved if lying is tolerated, then we can see that whenever this principle is violated it is a moral violation. And this is not simply true of our society today, but it is true of every society that has or will exist. Thus, the basis of Weaver’s argument is the foursquare acceptance of the metaphysics of realism because only a dualism of the spiritual and the physical will provide him with the order of truth and those stable social values from which he criticizes the present age.
The Nominalist Heresy
The doctrine of nominalism, often also called empiricism, positivism, or materialism, holds that only the individual is real. The universal is seen as a mental fiction useful in organizing the disparate aspects of reality so that they may be more easily studied or categorized. Nominalism explicitly denies any such reality as human nature being grounded outside the knowing mind. In fact, it denies the knowing mind in favor of sense perception alone. Reality is not intelligible, it is sensible only.
The implications of this doctrine are fearful. There is no order of truth in the traditional sense, there are only facts; there are no universally valid moral principles, but only relative moral standards; there is no hierarchy of meaning within reality to serve as a basis for judging which human attainments are higher than others; the denial of the intelligibility of the universe entails the denial of understanding and wisdom as the basis of authority and law, and substitutes wealth and power; the purpose of each individual human life within the created order loses its meaning, and the purpose of human life is not discovered by analysis of the real, but chosen by each individual to be whatever he wants it to be; and finally, the arts follow this downward spiral from dealing with the grand themes of medieval and renaissance art, through the sentimentalism of the romantic era, to the prevailing desire for immediacy.
Weaver traces the rise of nominalism in the fourteenth century from William of Ockham, through its further development by the British Empiricists in the eighteenth century, to its popular acceptance in the twentieth century. For its rapid spread from the end of World War I until the time of his writing of Ideas, Weaver credits what he calls “the great stereopticon.” That is, the movies, the press and the radio. Television had not achieved the status that it has today, but if Weaver had revised Ideas he certainly would have included television as even a greater force for cultural and social dissolution.
Weaver condemns the great stereopticon because, he says, it provides the public with “a sickly metaphysical dream.”3 It encourages the view that the purpose of life is happiness through comfort; it is antithetical to critical thinking by promoting passivity in its readers, hearers, and viewers; and it undermines an adequate view of reality by espousing the doctrine of presentism and the endless round of becoming.
For Weaver, a proper metaphysical dream is based upon “an unsentimental sentiment.” It is an inchoate feeling that reality is the result of planning, and if the human person is willing to study the created order, he will find therein the meaning and purpose of human life that provides a social bond that unites mankind in an ongoing pursuit of a just society and high cultural attainments.
This metaphysical dream provides a basis of agreement for the important issues of life, and without this agreement men cannot live in harmony and peace. It is the loss of the common metaphysical dream that is the root cause of our society’s problems. In Weaver’s words,
What Weaver labors to make clear is that unless we agree on primary issues, we cannot argue in the sense that the philosopher means by the term “argue.” The purpose of argument is to achieve clarification and understanding. It demands prior agreement on such basic issues as the nature of reality and the meaning of words. For this reason the realist and the nominalist cannot argue in the proper meaning of that term. Lacking prior agreement on basic issues, they can only carry on a semblance of argument that leads nowhere.
This is the plight of our age. We lack the ability to address the profound issues that are at the basis of a meaningful culture, and so we distract ourselves with discussion of issues of secondary importance, relegating the former to private concern while the latter occupy the public sphere.
Real Freedom & Its Demise
To exemplify the dramatic change in perspective that has come about, I wish to examine the basic notion of freedom as it is viewed within a metaphysics of realism, and contrast it with the notion of freedom as espoused by nominalism. In the doctrine of realism where reason has priority over will, freedom is defined as the ability to do what one knows to be good. This is the controlling view of Aristotelian ethics. Man must discover through reason the good, which is defined as those activities that perfect him both as an individual and as a social being. From the repetition of these activities, good habits or virtues are developed. The practice of virtue, in turn, develops a person’s character, so a person becomes honest, courageous, just, and temperate. As one practices the virtues, one gains deeper understanding of what constitutes the good action, and thus is capable of more accurate judgment of the truly good action even in complex situations.
On the basis of his theory that the practice of virtue increases knowledge of what constitutes the virtuous action in the practical order, Aristotle is led to posit as the criterion of good actions, the good person. If you wish to know what is the just action in any particular situation, Aristotle can only answer: “Ask the just person.” Thus, according to this theory, to become free is to achieve self-control, that is, to possess the ability to follow reason’s guidance in making rational choices, often in spite of the contrary inclination of one’s animal nature. Plato’s warning, “Beware of pleasure and pleasant things,” was heeded by Aristotle who saw true education as the process by which the student learns to judge what constitutes pleasure in the proper human sense of that term.
Central to this view is the position that reality provides the basis for both metaphysical and moral truths. The human endeavor is to study reality in search of these truths and to apply them to complex situations with as much accuracy as possible. Each generation is aided by the wisdom of the past, and is called upon to contribute further to the ongoing study and understanding of what is really real.
Contrasted with this view is the nominalistic definition of freedom as the ability to do what one wants. Here we give priority to will over intellect, and education is the process of developing within each individual the intellectual abilities to achieve a desired end. Reason becomes the servant of appetite. In denying a created order, nominalism must emphasize not the discovery of meaning in reality, but the positing of meaning by each individual. We no longer discover meaning outside of ourselves in an ordered universe, but we are free to determine for ourselves what meaning our life will have.
The Consequences for Moral Truth
Because of this emphasis on the individual will, we have seen freedom of speech change from its traditional role of providing protection for the pursuit of truth in open intellectual and political dialogue, to protection of any form of speech no matter its intent.
Weaver, with one of his characteristic pithy statements, writes: “The separation of religion from education, one of the proudest achievements of modernism, is but an extension of the separation of knowledge from metaphysics.”5 This observation is germane to the issue of freedom. By the separation of knowledge from metaphysics, Weaver is referring to nominalism’s denial of any doctrine of truth objectively realized. This leads to Bacon’s view of knowledge as power, or the utilitarian view that the purpose of knowledge is to assist in the attainment of desire.
The separation of religion from education refers to the denial of moral truths, leaving each individual to search within himself for some basis of right and wrong, sometimes known in educational circles as “values clarification.” Weaver’s point was made recently at the University of Chicago when the faculty member selected to give the 1997 “The Aims of Education Address” told the freshmen with some degree of approbation:
That Weaver saw this development fifty years ago is a wonderful testimony to his prescience, and one can only speculate as to his reaction had he been sitting in Rockefeller Chapel for this address to the freshmen. It would seem that, if our “best and brightest” are being indoctrinated with the doctrine of nominalism, in fact, have been for quite a while now, then any sort of reversal would be most doubtful. From the hallowed halls of our great universities comes our leadership, and to whatever extent Weaver’s analysis is valid, to that extent there is reason to be apprehensive about our country’s future.
Metaphysical Rights & Obligations
Weaver finds an answer to our present dilemma in what he calls “The Last Metaphysical Right,” viz., private property. One must first understand clearly what Weaver means by private property because it cannot be identified with the notion of private property as understood by capitalism. Private property for Weaver is that property which can be identified with the individual: the family farm, the privately owned home, or the small business. It is not stocks and bonds, nor is it the impersonal corporation overseen by professional managers and owned by thousands of shareholders. Weaver writes:
What is this “privacy” that private property provides? For Weaver private property is the ground of personal responsibility, and it is the source of personal growth, allowing a person to complete himself. A person needs private property in order to perfect himself because there is an inalienable bond between a person and his property.
More importantly, private property becomes for Weaver the lever by which he can pry a crack in the monism of materialism and make room for dualism. If private property is, as he believes, a priority among middle-class values, then Weaver can argue that the middle class must recognize that private property, in his sense of that term, requires also that one admit of the reality of the spiritual along with the physical.
The reason that Weaver has called private property a metaphysical right is to show that it is not grounded in the material order of change and temporality, but has its basis in the unchanging order of the spiritual. For Weaver, right and obligation are correlatives. If one wishes to preserve the right of private property, then one must admit also of the obligations of stewardship, which entail the preservation and development of property for one’s children and grandchildren.
Behind this line of argument is the recognition of the notion of community. Membership in the community belongs to three groups: the dead, the living, and the unborn. The living owe a debt to the dead which they can only pay to the unborn. This is the basis of the idea of stewardship. The living inherit the property from those who have gone before, and they must protect and enhance it for the benefit of those yet to come. This is the spiritual order that transcends the immediate.
Weaver’s dedication to the principles of Southern Agrarianism, which is never explicitly mentioned in Ideas, becomes clear in his use of private property as the answer to the problems of the current crisis. He was prejudiced in favor of rural life over urban life, and the farmer over the city dweller.
However, he is speaking to a public which is for the most part ignorant of the principles upon which his argument is based. The right of private property and its corresponding responsibilities of stewardship resonate only with a declining percentage of the population, even in Weaver’s beloved Southern culture. In fact, perhaps we should say especially in Weaver’s beloved Southern culture, which has chosen to throw off the burden of agrarianism in favor of technology and commerce. It is an ancient adage that “The corruption of the best is always the worst.”
Language & Piety
To the last metaphysical right Weaver would add the necessity of a special type of education if we are to set matters aright. He calls for the restoration of the study of language, in particular, poetry, foreign languages, and rhetoric. The study of poetry, he tells us, will teach the evocative power of language; foreign languages, particularly the translation of Latin and Greek, will provide discipline and an antidote to slovenliness in the use of language; and rhetoric provides us with stability in the meaning of words that is necessary for the understanding of law.
To these two—private property and the study of language—Weaver adds a third path back to social sanity: it is by way of piety, which he defines as “a discipline of the will through respect.”9 Piety must be directed at nature, our neighbors (i.e., all other people), and the past. Piety is directed at nature because it represents a created order and commands our respect; piety is directed at our neighbors because we all share in a common human nature; and piety is directed towards the past because history reveals the existence of law and the hand of providence. These three objects of piety stand as guardians against hubris, that most seductive temptation of the contemporary age.
It is difficult to conclude a discussion of Weaver’s thought on an optimistic note. There are those of us who agree with his basic insights, but we are lacking in both numbers and influence. Those whom Weaver called “the Progressives” have won the day. They control “the Great Stereopticon,” the major universities, and the giant corporations. We could add the Supreme Court, but that would be for another symposium at another time.
What might be interesting to discuss is the issue that, if Weaver is basically correct in his analysis, and if ideas do have consequences, and if our society has embraced erroneous ideas, then what will be our nation’s future in 2023, i.e., twenty-five years from now?
1. Cf. Albert William Levi, Philosophy and the Modern World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959), 5: “Western man looks back with longing to two great periods of cultural synthesis—the secular millennium of the Athenian city state and the otherworldly paradise of the Middle Ages.”
2. Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 3. Page references in this paper will be to the 1976 Midway Reprint edition.
3. Ibid., 104.
4. Ibid., 21.
5. Ibid., 93.
6. “The Aims of Education Address,” presented by John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science and the College, University of Chicago, September 21, 1997. Published in The University of Chicago Record 32 (1997). The address is a good example of what Weaver called “the separation of metaphysics from knowledge and of religion from education.” Professor Mearsheimer took note of the fact that he was delivering the address in the Rockefeller Chapel, and told the freshmen that religion played a large role in education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, “Today, elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter. There is no question that the University of Chicago makes hardly any effort to provide you with moral guidance. Moreover, I would bet that you will take few classes here at Chicago where you discuss ethics or morality in any detail, mainly because those kind of courses do not exist.”
7. Weaver, 133.
8. Ibid., 134.
9. Ibid., 172.
This article is a slightly edited version of an address given at a conference on the work of Richard Weaver held at Belmont Abbey College in the spring of 1998. The papers presented at that conference, including this article, have just been published by ISI in a book entitled Steps Toward Restoration.
Robert A. Preston is President of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina. Prior to that he was Provost at Illinois Benedictine College (now Benedictine University). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from The Catholic University of America, and he and his wife Helen have five grown children.
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